COLUMBIA — In the fall of 2012, Jilly Dos Santos spent two months knocking on doors and canvassing for the Missouri Democratic Coordinated campaign. On Nov. 5, the 16-year-old failed her first driver’s license test.
But the next day, Election Day, Dos Santos retook the test. This time, she passed.
"It was like two great things happened," she said. "A president was reelected while I was working for the Democrats, and I got my license. And my picture turned out well. I didn’t really care if I passed the test, but if my picture looked bad I would’ve cried."
Dos Santos, a sophomore at Rock Bridge High School, has become a recognizable figure in the debate over new start times in Columbia Public Schools. She helped champion the version approved March 11 by the Columbia School Board, in which high school students start the latest, at 9 a.m., and get out at 4:05 p.m.
Addressing the school board on Jan. 14, Dos Santos said high school students' circadian rhythms would be incompatible with an early start time and cited research from Start School Later, an advocacy group that compares sleep patterns with academic performance.
"Some might say, oh, well, just tell your kid to go to bed earlier," she told the board. "Well, it’s really not that easy. We have later biological clocks."
Dos Santos also created a districtwide student advocacy group, Students’ Say, over the start-time debate, but she intends it to have longer staying power. The group has more than 500 members on Facebook and more than 150 followers on Twitter, most of them students.
"I didn’t really know she was even doing this," her oldest brother, Steven Dos Santos, said. "I just got an invitation on Facebook. Then I started seeing things on the news."
David Graham, an Advanced Placement social studies teacher at Rock Bridge and sponsor of Students' Say, said Dos Santos was driven by her strong opinions and passion about the issue.
"She’s tremendously organized," Graham said. "She was able to use all those things to her advantage to try to get other students motivated and involved. That’s what you always dream of as a teacher, to have a student who not only is involved ... but wants to get other people involved as well."
Passion for volunteering
Jilly Dos Santos, whose first name is short for Jillian, was shy as a child, but she said she has become more outgoing in the past several years. When she was 9, she lost her mother, Cathy Dos Santos, to ovarian cancer in 2006.
"I think I became more outgoing just because I was forced to," Jilly Dos Santos said. "A lot of my friends had their parents doing things for them always, and for me it was, 'If you want to find a ride somewhere, you’ve got to do it.'"
Her mother helped her develop a desire to help others. In third grade, Dos Santos and her twin sister, Merritt Dos Santos, had their birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's. Instead of asking for presents, they asked for charitable donations. Jilly Dos Santos said she was wary of the idea at first, but when she saw how excited her mother was, she changed her mind.
"She basically told us there’s lots of kids out there who don’t have what we have, and when they have a birthday, they can’t have a party at Chuck. E. Cheese's," Dos Santos said. "When I fully comprehended we were doing something good, I got into it."
She has volunteered for organizations and causes around Columbia, including the Missouri Democratic Coordinated campaign and the Peace Nook, a nonprofit, volunteer-based store and community center downtown
"I’ve never had a real job, so maybe I’ll get one and think I was crazy for doing work for free," Dos Santos said.
Most recently, she volunteered as a ticket taker for the True/False Film Fest.
"I ended up hanging out with these two volunteers who used to go to Rock Bridge and Hickman (High School), and they’re friends with my biology teacher," Dos Santos said. "That’s the best part about volunteering. You meet so many people that you never would have."
Dos Santos is the youngest of the seven siblings — arriving one minute after her twin — so she is used to spending time with older people.
"There’s a pretty big age gap between us, but she’s always been very mature," said Steven Dos Santos, 27. "Back when she was 11 or 12, she seemed way older than that."
Foreign languages important
Jilly Dos Santos also volunteered at La Petite Ecole, a French immersion school in Columbia. Last summer, before she had her driver's license, she rode her bike to work there.
"The first two days were really scary because that was the first time I had ever been forced to speak French," she said. "I was terrified to say anything."
She started taking foreign language classes in seventh grade and quickly developed an interest in them. She takes Spanish and Latin at Rock Bridge as well as private French lessons. Next year, she will take Spanish and Japanese classes at Rock Bridge and continue to take private French lessons. She also plans to take a Mandarin course online through Middlebury College in Vermont.
"Every time I talk to her, she knows a different foreign language," Steven Dos Santos said.
Their father, Enrique Dos Santos, moved to the United States from Argentina in 1974. He never taught his children Spanish but spoke it himself.
"For some reason, I didn’t want to learn Spanish at first — I signed up for French," Jilly Dos Santos admitted. "He was kind of unhappy with that."
As a compromise, she promised to take Spanish the next year but ended up taking both. This year, she added Latin.
"French and Spanish are pretty related," Dos Santos said. “Taking Latin now, I kind of see where they all come together."
She hopes to study foreign language in college. Right now, her dream is to attend Middlebury, a private school with a reputation for excellent foreign language programs.
"I probably won’t end up going there, but I’ve looked into some really good foreign language schools like the University of Wisconsin at Madison, so I’m thinking about that," she said.
Her after-college dream is to teach English in the Peace Corps, because it combines her love of foreign language and volunteerism.
"I want to see every part of the world," Dos Santos said. "That’s one reason I’m excited to be taking Japanese and Mandarin next year, because that’ll open up a whole culture that I’ve never really studied in depth."
Her ultimate goal is to work for the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service officer.
"Anything that gets me out there in the field working and doing something with politics and foreign policy or something in another country would be great," she said.
Right now, she’s focusing on what she can do in the Columbia community.
Graham, Dos Santos's teacher in AP world studies, said she has grown as a leader in the past two months as she attempts to involve students in the education debate and bridge a gap between Hickman and Rock Bridge students.
“She’s still learning," Graham said. "I think she’d probably be the first to tell you that she’s made mistakes. But at the same time, she has the passion. She’s only a sophomore and she’s still got that kind of unique characteristic and drive to want to be a good leader."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.